Teachers explore research options through master’s courses

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This is the start of a series of blogs that will outline the thoughts of some of the very experienced teachers working for the IOP’s education team who have embarked on a master’s-level course. To begin with, it would seem appropriate to outline the reasons the project started.

More than a decade ago I was fortunate enough to get the chance to run the IOP Teacher Network. The physics network coordinators (PNCs) that make up the network quickly highlighted the need for greater support for those teaching physics without a physics background, and this led to the formation of the Stimulating Physics Network (SPN).

The IOP gives a lot of support to those teaching physics. To list all the different aspects would be difficult, but the TalkPhysics website, email lists, day meetings, twilight sessions, and summer schools all provide opportunities for teachers to develop. While we offer plenty of support for inexperienced teachers of physics, as well as a lot of support for more experienced ones, catering for very experienced teachers is trickier. For the teaching and learning coaches of SPN, and for the PNCs, there is an obvious route to development as they get to grips with providing continuing professional development (CPD) for their peers. It would, though, be impossible to give every very experienced physics teacher a job with the IOP.

So how do we support those teachers who could easily be running the workshops we provide, and who may well have seen it all before? As any very experienced physics teacher will tell you, they know full well that they haven’t seen it all before – and even if they had, a chance to discuss and reflect on old ideas does you no harm. It isn’t really much of a development trajectory though.

There is an obvious link to education research here. Experienced teachers should somehow be involved in education research. If you want to develop your teaching, some evidence would be good. Unfortunately all too often the way this works is that someone writes a book and tells teachers what they should be doing. This will be linked to research evidence, but it doesn’t differ very much from the treatment given to inexperienced teachers who also get told what to do – sometimes because of research evidence, sometimes based on someone else’s experience, or in the worst cases based on the current fashionable education trend.

I would like to see a route by which experienced teachers are given the tools and training to measure student progress for themselves, rather than relying on someone else’s research. When you read through the books that offer you new ways to improve, you always have those concerns that “those weren’t like the kids I teach”, “it wasn’t me or teachers like me in that study”, and, often, “that wasn’t the type of system/school I’m in”. For experienced teachers, I’d like to see suggestions for interventions go hand in hand with a tool for measuring how well that intervention worked. Don’t take our word for it that this is a good idea; here’s the tool, see how it works for yourself.

If teachers only keep that information to themselves, then the teaching community would have lots of action research going on. It might be more useful if we organised that research so that an evidence base could be built up, where teachers entered their results and the community could get an idea of what might be useful from comparisons to similar situations. Perhaps we might run a specific tool for a few years before moving on to a new one. Not only would this help teachers, but it would help shape policy, removing those parts of the curriculum that are misplaced.

The above is just one idea, and while the IOP has extensive networks that can make it a reality, there are other options. The reason for sending four PNCs on a master’s-level course in education is partly to explore those options. The course we chose is run by Oxford University, and is a world first. Part of the reason for the course is to help participants explore how experienced teachers can be helped to develop because, as one of the tutors explained, “no one has cracked it yet”. These blogposts will help explain how our attempts to crack it are going – and how those involved in the project are finding the journey.

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Gary Williams

Gary Williams

Gary is the national coordinator for the IOP Teacher Network and editor-in-chief of Physics Education.
Gary Williams

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2 thoughts on “Teachers explore research options through master’s courses

  1. I did wonder what form the pampering might take (PTNC 02/11/16). A 2 year p/t course could be quite demanding for anyone in a position of some responsibility, unless suitable arrangements could be made at the school end of things. Of course, the right choice of topic would itself be a motivator, but as “very experienced teachers” will tend to be older, some may find their ability to recover, after a full day’s work plus burning the midnight oil is more limited than it used to be. Day to day performance, as well as the study project might then suffer. Not a reason not to proceed, but a matter to consider realistically.

  2. I think it’s also the case that as you get more experienced you tend to think longer about things rather than rushing in. I suspect we’ve all been on the end of those learning experiences where the SMT convinces everyone that a new plan is needed that will involve a big push and then it will all be a brave new world with perfume and roses. Then after you’ve done all the work nothing much seems to have changed. And then it appears the SMTs case was a little less rock solid than they made out. Hence I would be heading for pampering that involved more reading and stimulation and so forth as opposed to loads of hard graft, like rewriting yet another scheme of work. I think very experienced teachers deserve a bit of thinking space.

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